Nature vs Nurture—Nothing is “Common Sense” Anymore

From the monthly column “Becoming”. ShowSight Magazine, December 2018 Issue. Click to Subscribe.

The arguments surrounding the impacts of Nature vs Nurture on people, dogs cows and all things mammal have been around for centuries. There have been debates, scientific studies, lots of anecdotal examples, and many conversations about which is more important than another in their impact on the final product. Mostly I have heard interesting conversations that usually invoked some sort of informed dialogue. Few people could actually cite research findings (Carman Battaglia and Pat Trotter are notable exceptions), but there has almost always been a basic understanding about what the two concepts involved, and their relative contributions in a breeding program. Even our mothers and fathers knew what we meant when we discussed the virtues and downfalls in nature vs nurture conversations. I usually found the conversations interesting, even if they lacked scientific support. How much of our dogs is a result of genetics, and how much is the result of how they are card for? Can genetics be transformed with enough positive training? Can great genetics inoculate a dog against the effects of poor socialization? They are great questions, worthy of discussion.

We are in a different world today. That became immediately obvious to me in two ways this past week. Disclaimer first. I didn’t actually participate in the first conversation, so I am passing along hearsay. However, I have had similar conversations to this one with several pet owners I have as boarding clients, so I do not doubt its authenticity.

An AKC doggy person was at a park and remarked about the lovely Poodle another woman was walking. The woman huffed, and told our doggy lady that her dog was not a Poodle, but actually a Goldendoodle (as though that was somehow better—another story). Then she began to explain to our doggy lady that the breeder of this dog had bred a Poodle female to a Golden male to produce the previous Goldendoodle this lady owned, so she went back to the same breeder to get another dog. The “breeder” told her that she was in luck because she had just bred the mother of the Goldendoodle to a Poodle male, and the lady could buy one of those Goldendoodle puppies. Please go back and carefully re-read what I just wrote. The “breeder” bred a female Poodle to a male Poodle and told the buyer the puppies would be Goldendoodles. Now in fairness, I don’t know if the Goldendoodle lady made up the following, or if she heard it from her “breeder”, but it goes something like this. Yes, the mother and father were both Poodles, but they carried a doodle factor, so when bred together by a breeder of Goldendoodles they would produce Goldendoodle puppies. So in this lady’s world her puppy is not a Poodle in spite of the fact that both parents are Poodles. It is the offspring of two doodle-factored Poodles, thereby making it a Goldendoodle. This made my head hurt.

The second conversation was not near as extreme, but still significant. A woman called and asked if I had any older bedlingons that might be good at killing vermin. She lived on a lot of acreage that had been home to cattle, but was now home to mostly moles and gophers. She had heard Bedlingtons were good vermin killers and she was interested in buying one. I was thinking this conversation was going to go in a really nice direction when she mentioned that she also had a somewhat submissive male Goldendoodle and wanted to know if an adult Bedlington would get along with her wonderful pet. Now it was getting complicated.

I explained to the woman that the best vermin killer Bedlingtons were likely to be the ones that had a lower threshold for kill mode. Though I have not bred specifically for vermin-killing, it is truly an instinct that has been bred into these dogs over centuries. She was on the right track looking for an effective vermin killer in Terriers, but then she wanted to be reassured that the dog that would surely kill vermin would also leave alone her submissive and probably annoying Goldendoodle. I could not guarantee that would be true. In my experience with Bedlingtons, it is never wise to leave them unattended with another dog because the same instinct that makes them great at their vermin-killing job, can also make them great at attacking another animal, humans excluded. Most of the Bedlingtons I have known and bred adore their people, but not always another animal in the same vicinity. I speculate that this is because the Terriers, like hunting dogs, were bred to work for their people to make their lives better. Sporting dogs do what their people ask them in order to bring food to the table and Terriers do what their humans want in killing small mammals humans don’t want
around them. Both types of dogs love their people, but they have been bred with very different instincts designed to support their people. Sporting dogs usually have soft mouths. They have been bred for this trait. Terriers have huge teeth and deadly mouths, and they know how to use them.

Fortunately the lady in this conversation immediately understood what I was saying since she and her husband had bred cattle at one time. We talked about nature vs nurture, and she generally agreed that nature was quite important—she just had not thought about how it might affect her choice of breeds and how they would get along with her current pets. A Bedlington could surely do the job of killing vermin, but it could also kill other animals unless carefully trained to distinguish between “good” vermin and “bad” vermin. And with their relatively low threshold for kill-mode, would it be the right breed for this household? She decided she wanted to do some more research and think a little more about what managing these pets might take, and she would get back to me. It was a great decision. I don’t know if I will hear from her again, but it was certainly good to be able to have the conversation with someone who understood the issues.

Sadly, conversations like the first one are far more prevalent today than conversations like the second. As our society has become more removed from an agrarian culture it is becoming less informed about the processes of animal husbandry. And that’s dangerous. It leads them to think the world of Disney is true, while the world of wolves killing other animals—domestic and wild—is a fairy tale. They no longer have grandparents or cousins who live in the country, or friends with hobby farms. Today’s animal-loving kids want to be a veterinarian or start a rescue. There is little interest in being a breeder or a farmer. And the well-intentioned misinformation about animals
is rampant.

I am one of the lonely voices in the crowd who does not think Pitbulls make particularly good family pets. These dogs have been bred to kill other dogs. They do it well. It’s in their genes. And most pet owners are not equipped with the training or nurturing skills to overcome centuries of genetic programming. I’ve heard the well-intentioned mantras that try to explain that it’s not the dog, it’s the way humans raise them. It reminds me of the NRA propaganda that says guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And dog-killing dogs, in the hands of untrained or unstable people are just as dangerous as guns in the hands of untrained, unstable people. The difference is that nobody is calling for background checks or dog-safety courses for Pitbull owners. You can’t overcome centuries of genetic programming by just loving a dog, but that’s what people today believe. Just as two “doodle-factored” Poodles can create a Goldendoodle, supplying enough love can prevent a tragic accident with a Pitbull. It’s magical thinking that feels good. And it’s wrong.

I wish I had a quick or easy suggestion for correcting the massive amount of misinformation that circulates around the breeding, training and care of dogs. With the internet, bad and even dangerous information is as easily accessible as good, useful information, and there are no guides to tell us which is which. I find myself frequently saying things like, “I know this seems counter-intuitive, but I want you to try…” My breeding, care and training advice for dogs comes as much from 45 years of experience as it does from formal educational sources. My formal education has taught me how to be scientifically analytical and critical, but it is my real-world experience that has guided most of my livestock management practices. I have learned so much from large animal breeders and veterinarians. I would never have identified too much iron in water as a critical factor in fertility if I had not listened to the pig farmers and the companies who serve them, nor would I know as much about saving newborn puppies if I had not had the guiding experience of a large animal vet who recommended a pigrail for my whelping box and taught me how to assist in a difficult labor.

As a breeder of dogs, and as a life-long student of animal husbandry practices my hope is that younger people will come back to valuing the wealth of information inside the heads of long-time preservation breeders. My hope is that they give up on the notion that they can learn everything they need to know by logging on to a computer. As corporate farms replace small family farms our society is losing all contact with the people who spend lifetimes breeding and caring for animals. Their information is being lost and is getting replaced by people like the Goldendoodle “breeder”.

Perhaps it’s time for the AKC to begin hosting symposiums around the country, inviting the long-time preservation breeders to discuss best practices. Perhaps we could even invite some dairy, pig or goat farmers to join us. Perhaps then we can start selling ourselves as the experts we are to a public that does not know anything about the fundamentals of what we do, or why it is important to them. Perhaps we can add some real knowledge to the noise that passes for truth these days. Perhaps it’s not too late—if we start now.

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